Approximately 1,940 miles of farmland, mountains, forests and desert separate Gustavus Adolphus College and Stanford University. While Gustavus enrolls approximately 2,500 undergraduate students, around 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled at Stanford. One of those 20,000 students is 2011 Gustavus graduate Kelly Broady.
Broady, a native of St. Louis Park, Minn., earned her undergraduate degree at Gustavus in biology and is now part of the Class of 2014 in Stanford’s renowned Master’s Program in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling. While genetic counseling has been around since the 1970s, it’s a field that many Americans know little about.
“Genetic counselors work with patients and families to help them navigate through the processes of understanding risks associated with genetic disorders, making decisions about genetic testing, and dealing with the implications of the information they receive,” Broady said. “We serve as a resource and advocate for patients and provide them with supportive counseling. Genetic counselors work in a variety of clinical specialties including cancer, pediatrics and prenatal, as well as taking on other roles working in laboratory, clinical research, and industry settings.”
The program at Stanford is highly competitive, as the school elects to interview only 35 applicants and then accepts a class of seven students each year.
“When I received the phone call offering me a spot in the incoming class at Stanford, I was overcome with both relief and excitement,” Broady said. “I had been working toward my goal of enrolling in a master’s program for genetic counseling for so long and it had finally all come together for me. It was extremely rewarding to know that my efforts had paid off.”
Those efforts, no doubt, started at Gustavus in the biology department and the Nobel Hall of Science. Broady was introduced to genetics in her core biology classes during her freshman and sophomore years and then elected to take two upper level genetics courses including Genetics and Molecular Genetics. She also developed strong and close relationships with several faculty members in the biology department, including Dr. Sanjive Qazi.
“I originally thought Kelly was going to be heading for graduate school in molecular biology, but she indicated to me that she wanted to pursue a career that involved more contact with people and issues for the society at large,” Qazi said. “Our discussions sparked a passion for genetic counseling as a way of both utilizing her excellent knowledge of genetics and molecular biology and her desire to work with clients.”
Together, Broady and Qazi devised an upper level independent research project that explored discovery-driven efforts to identify new pathways and target sites for breast cancer therapies. It was the type of research that required Broady to develop new skill sets to both statistically analyze and data/text mine public databases. A major learning outcome of the project was to filter and organize large amounts of information to provide detailed insights into the genes affected by breast cancer progression. Broady was forced to be creative in asking new questions about a biological process and ultimately formed new hypotheses as to how normal cells become pathological cells.
“Kelly obtained an “A” in this research effort that required her to write multiple reports and give a final presentation,” Qazi said. “She immediately garnered insight in the role genomics will play in future diagnostic and prognostic capabilities. Her unique skill set will be very beneficial in future genetic counseling research.”
Broady’s research project led her to propose a senior honors thesis titled “How Much Do Science and Law Inform Reproductive Choice? A study of public opinions on prenatal genetic testing.” As forms of noninvasive prenatal diagnosis (NIPD) become more readily available to pregnant women, Broady hypothesized that having the option of testing that does not incur risk may lead women to make hasty decisions about genetic testing without taking the time to become educated about the possible repercussions. After examining literature pertaining to the ethical concerns surrounding NIPD, analyzing survey results, and investigating case studies, Broady constructed a picture of current attitudes and their implications.
“The passion and drive Kelly exhibited in this research was exemplary,” Qazi said. “Her organization capabilities were far beyond any student I have worked with, requiring her to form a committee with a genetic counselor, a molecular biologist, and myself and sufficiently addressing all our concerns spanning across disciplines.”
Broady’s research resulted in specific recommendations including promoting education for the general public regarding genetic testing options and their advantages and disadvantages to support fully informed consent; the establishment of more organized education for medical professionals so that the healthcare system is as well informed as possible about types of genetic tests; continued research on NIPD methods while further developing genetic counseling practices to deal with the potential surge in popularity of prenatal genetic testing when it is perceived as risk-free; promoting introspection within institutions developing genetic tests in order to ensure that the types of testing they develop are medically and societally beneficial; requiring the FDA to hold laboratories developing direct-to-consumer genetic testing to very high standards and ensure that no genetic test results reach consumers through any medium other than a licensed medical professional training in genetic counseling; and requiring health and life insurance companies to explicitly inform clients and potential clients of what they legally are and are not allowed to do in terms of genetic discrimination.
“I am so lucky to have had wonderful professors and mentors in the biology department at Gustavus. Dr. Qazi offered to be my advisor for my honors thesis and was very supportive and helpful as I developed my project,” Broady said. “Biology professors Dr. Colleen Jacks and Dr. Kimberly Murphy served on my committee and devoted much of their time and attention to supporting me and my thesis.” Broady’s thesis committee also included Gustavus alumna Jina Faurot ’97, who practices genetic counseling at the Park Nicollet facility in St. Louis Park.
In genetic counseling training programs like the one Broady is enrolled in at Stanford, students are educated using lecture and discussion based classes combined with many hours in clinical practice under the supervision of practicing genetic counselors and physicians. Broady spent the first quarter this past fall almost entirely in the classroom, but as of January will spend 15-20 hours a week in a prenatal clinic and the rest of her time in class. Her spring quarter will be structured similarly with both clinic and class time, but she will switch from the prenatal clinic to the pediatric genetics clinic. She will also start to develop a research project to focus on during the next year and a half to contribute to the body of research in the field.
While Broady is just four months into the program, she is already reaping the benefits not only from the instruction she received from the Gustavus biology department, but the liberal arts experience as a whole.
“During my first quarter of the program I realized just how valuable some of the courses I took outside of my major at Gustavus have been to me as well,” Broady said. “Concepts I studied in Applied Ethics in the philosophy department, Cognitive Psychology, and Developmental Psychology have already come up in my studies at Stanford. I have been a proponent of a liberal arts education for a long time because of the breadth of subjects students are encouraged to study, and it is exciting for me to experience its benefits in such an explicit way in graduate school.”
Qazi and others in the Gustavus biology department are excited to see how Broady will influence the field of genetic counseling after she graduates from Stanford.
“As you can see, Kelly made the most of her Gustavus experience to become very knowledgeable in her subject area,” Qazi said. “I expect that she will have a very satisfying and fast progressing career that will combine genetic counseling with the latest research findings from genomics.”